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This chapter is from the book

The F Word

Of all the competing proprietary solutions that corporations have tried to sell, none has succeeded as brilliantly as Flash [3.15]. The product began as a humble plug-in called FutureSplash that allowed designers to embed vector-based graphics and animations on their pages.

Designers paid little attention to FutureSplash, but Macromedia immediately recognized its potential. Macromedia bought the plug-in and its associated authoring tool, renamed it Flash, and rebuilt it into a richly flexible authoring environment driven by a powerful JavaScript-like programming language called ActionScript.

Macromedia also managed to foster a cult of Flash development—one that remains strong to this day. When Adobe bought Macromedia in 2005, although designers wondered how the two companies’ cultures could be made to mesh, nobody thought for a moment that Adobe would cease development of Flash, and the company never will.

The Value of Flash

While the incompatible scripting languages and object models of the 4.0 browsers wreaked havoc and drove up costs, Flash 4 and its powerful scripting language worked equally well in Navigator, IE, and Opera and nearly as well in Mac OS, Linux, and UNIX as it did in Windows. For many designers, it was adios to HTML and hello to Flash.

Spinning logos, tedious “loading” screens, and endless, unwanted “intros” initially gave Flash a bad name among users. But juvenile abuse of the new tool’s power eventually gave way to sophisticated user experiences created by the likes of Second Story (www.secondstory.com), the Chopping Block [3.16] and other high-end shops. Less talented and less innovative agencies hastily hopped on the Flash bandwagon, often producing far less engaging sites, but you can’t blame bad carpentry on the hammer and nails. Flash was eating the rich application space the way Microsoft’s browser was eating Netscape’s lunch.

Although appropriate to many projects, Flash was wrong for countless others that used it anyway, and Flash 4 suffered from woeful usability and accessibility problems that bothered users tremendously without seeming to be noticed by developers and clients. Among the product’s most vocal critics was Jakob Nielsen (www.useit.com) of the Nielsen Norman consulting group.

In 2002, Macromedia addressed its problems by greatly improving the accessibility and usability features of its upgraded Flash MX product and by hiring Nielsen as a consultant, thereby changing his tune. (If Microsoft and Netscape had shown the same smarts and hired their harshest critics, this author would be lolling about on a private beach instead of toiling at this book—but I digress.)

In capable hands, Flash facilitates rich interactive experiences that would be difficult to emulate using web standards—although web standards (with a pinch of Microsoft technology) have begun eating into Flash’s lead as today’s rich web application development environment of choice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajax). More on this in Chapter 4.

The Trouble with Flash

The principal problem with Flash is that it is inappropriate for many content and commerce sites. Yet developers use it in these inappropriate situations because Flash facilitates snazzy presentations that make clients feel they’re getting bang for their buck—and because, successful or not, Flash sites look good in the company’s portfolio.

News sites, portals, shopping sites, institutional sites, community sites, magazines, directories, and others that emphasize text or involve practical interactivity are still best served with XHTML, CSS, and other standards. Yet many developers sell Flash instead, not because it serves the project’s goals, but because they get off on it, and because the resulting work attracts new clients. It’s like ad agencies pushing work that will not sell a product but will win them awards. Not that ad agencies ever do that.

The Other Trouble with Flash

The other problem with Flash is that some designers are so enamored of it that they’ve forgotten how to use web standards—if they ever knew in the first place. As a result, one finds Flash presentations embedded in sites that work only in one or two browsers. The Flash files themselves would work in any browser that contained the plug-in, but the sites have been so miserably authored that many users are unable to access the Flash content. There are even Flash sites that require IE merely to load a Flash presentation. This is like demanding that you use a Zenith (and not a Sony) simply to access your cable TV feed.

When called upon to create a “traditional” standards-based site, these shops use the old methods whose problems we’ve described in this book, often turning the job over to their junior teams, so senior designers and developers can continue to focus on Flash projects. It’s as if the web has stood still since these shops discovered Flash.

XML, XHTML, CSS, and the DOM are not dull technologies for junior teams and beginners, but mature and powerful standards capable of delivering rich user experiences. I have no problem with shops that specialize in beautiful, usable, highly functional Flash work. I would just like to see the same care and attention paid to the other 90% of design and development. But I don’t have to sell you. You bought this book.

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